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When I talk about my experiences with guns in the military, now memories nearly two decades old, somewhere in the conversation the listener inevitably demands that I admit I never really liked guns, that they scared me, that I was nervous, that we were all nervous, that we only did it because we were told to, that guns were alien and terrifying, and that I will never, ever use a gun again, cross my heart and hope the Democrats win in '08.
The first time I was with a woman was a rushed, ecstatic culmination
after months of a long, slow tease and decades of ignorance and denial. That is exactly how it was for me with guns. We — two dozen basic trainees at Lackland Air Force Base, 1983 — had itched to be on the rifle range, and we talked and whispered about it constantly, whenever talking was allowed, through several weeks of long droning classes, endless marching, foul food, classes on personal hygiene and military discipline, four a.m. runs in military formation, and endless pull-ups. Determinism had slowly purged our ranks of the wack jobs, bedwetters and chunky chickens (also called, in even more direct military fashion, "fat girls") who threatened our ability to Fly, Fight and Win. A mild collective case of Stockholm Syndrome caused us to begin agreeing heartily with anything the training instructors shouted, including the prediction, "Ladies, you're gonna love shooting!"
For every woman who joined up with a decade of experience hunting squirrels with Daddy, there were two who had never touched, even seen, a gun. Yet somehow, in the mysterious equation wherein we know things about ourselves, these women knew they were, shall I say, predisposed. Years of research by the Department of Defense have revealed that among recruits, more women than men are unfamiliar with guns, but after qualifying on the range — which women do with expertise equal to men, despite studies I suspect were intended to demonstrate otherwise — they feel equally comfortable with guns.
We each have a private path to the discovery of self and desire. The universe has a pecking order which insists that early, independent knowledge is best: the young daughter who begs to go possum-hunting and bags a deer on her first trip; the gay man who always knew he was different (and, more to the point, how); the transsexual who has known since the dawn of consciousness that he had the right brain in the wrong body; the trial lawyer who as a toddler clambered onto a tree stump and exhorted. But more of us, the less highly evolved, stumble forward blindly in life, tugged this way and that by cultural rules and imperatives. A chance occurrence — an encounter with a gun or a woman's soft lips — changes everything. Then, if we are fortunate, this encounter submits us to the mysterious imperatives of life itself. I look at the objects of my desire: women and guns, yes, but also roses, Wellfleet oysters, silver earrings, dry red wine, the color green in nearly every hue, fat new books, the gentle tweezing process of revising an essay, and the peppery fragrance of eucalyptus trees after a heavy rain; I understand that these are my desires, acquired slowly and haphazardly over nearly fifty years; but I do not understand why, nor perhaps should I. I am merely grateful that my desires and I got together in the first place.
On the weapons range I lay prone, my rifle ready. I silently begged our weapons instructor, Sergeant Ireland, to give us the order to fire. The wet heat of a summer afternoon in Texas pressed through my uniform, flattening my back like a huge unseen hand, but a broad green awning shaded my novice eyes from the fierce August sun, and my belly and breasts and thighs were deliciously comfortable from the cool, immaculate cement floor of the firing line. My breathing rasped harsh in my head, all other sounds muffled behind huge red Air-Force-issue ear defenders wrapped tight around my sweating skull.